The Long Way Home
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
In the grand scheme of things, most bands don't have much to worry about. Maybe the van breaks down once in a while, or a vanity drug habit gets a little out of hand. All are trifling concerns compared to what members of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have endured.
The six-piece group, led by 42-year-old musician Reuben M. Koroma, has weathered personal losses and upheavals few American artists can comprehend.
Caught in a brutal, decade-long civil war in their native West Africa, future SLRAS members were forced to flee Sierra Leone, settling in relief stations in nearby Guinea. In one such enclave, the Sembayounya Refugee Camp, Koroma started singing original songs to help him process his grief.
Huddled around oil lamps, Koroma taught his tunes to a ragtag group of musicians he had met along the way. Using beat-up acoustic guitars and handmade percussion, the band fleshed out Koroma's melodies. Although the players varied in age and background, they shared not just personal losses but also a belief in the healing power of music. The sound they arrived at was a melting pot of influences, including West African folk, reggae and rap.
The group soon became a sensation among refugees in their own makeshift village and beyond. First-time filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White, who were documenting the war's human cost, began hearing stories about a pack of musicians who traveled from camp to camp, bringing enlivening sounds to war-weary souls. Niles and White followed the group for three years, until its members could reunite with surviving friends and family.
The resulting picture, The Refugee Allstars, has been well received in both the film and music worlds. It was recently screened in Vermont as part of the Vermont International Film Festival.
Once out of the camps, SLRAS fulfilled their ambition to put their vibrant tunes to tape. With only a week to record, they hunkered down in a windowless studio in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where they powered their musical equipment with gas generators.
The fruits of these sessions were recently released by Epitaph Records offshoot, Anti. Appropriately titled Living Like a Refugee, the music chronicles Koroma & Co.'s many hardships. But ultimately, it is hopeful, with buoyant rhythms and soulful harmonies custom-made for dancing.
The nine-member touring incarnation of SLRAS will perform at the Barre Opera House on Friday, October 27, in a benefit for the Vermont Refugee Assistance Program. Seven Days recently tracked down Koroma in Guinea, West Africa.
SEVEN DAYS: Listening to your album, I was amazed at how uplifting it sounds, especially considering what you've been through. How did you stay so positive within the music?
REUBEN KOROMA: Well, music is something emotional. I'm a musician, and I'd been playing music before the war. So when war broke out, I was confused because I lost family members, and I missed my country. My mind was full of worries. But I sat down and realized: If I keep thinking about my worries, my life will not be safe. Well, I'm a musician. Let me just sing it so that I can purge some of my worries from my mind. I found music to be a therapy for psychological problems, believe or not. I became more normal from thinking positively.
SD: A lot of American groups don't have much to complain about, but sometimes they complain a lot, especially in their music. Do you think you could serve as an example to other musicians around the world?
RK: Yeah, I think so! But it all depends. Sometimes there are people who are realistic, but then there are others who refuse to accept the truth. I believe the musician should be someone who is courageous, someone who is patient.
SD: Your band mates come from different life experiences. What was the common ground when you first came together?
RK: The common ground was just music. It's kind of a universal language. We can play music together even if you don't understand the same language as me.
SD: I know a lot of other people in the camps, non-musicians, embraced your music and looked to it as a source of spiritual relief. Did you ever encounter any resistance?
RK: Well, yes, because for every good thing there's always somebody who doesn't like good things! It's just a part of nature. I can remember once when we were playing for people, someone got mad and said, "What are you doing? What kind of music are you playing?" He grabbed a hand drum and started spoiling everything. So the spectators ran against him and beat him because of that. In every society you naturally have people who don't like good things.
SD: How accurately does the movie portray you and your fellow refugees' struggle?
RK: I don't know exactly how Zach Niles and Banker White heard about us. But at that time the group was so much popular in the refugee camps. Those two were looking out for people like us. But they never disclosed why they were doing it. We didn't know what a documentary film means. We thought they were just taking our pictures to make fun in America or elsewhere.
SD: So you had no idea it was going to turn out like it did?
SD: There are continuing crises in other parts of the world, like Darfur. What do you think people like me can do to help those situations?
RK: I think ordinary Americans can help the suffering masses by writing articles about these things, and talking out about the situations that should not be. Maybe people in authority will hear them, because they're in the West. If they speak for the inarticulate masses, someone will hear. You can also help by donating something, and by simply giving ideas.
SD: Did you and your band mates always feel that you'd continue to play together?
RK: Yes, we are all musicians and that's what we do. We still go to refugee camps to play. That's part of our objective - to help other refugees. But we need assistance, too from other organizations. We are just the talent! But it doesn't cost us anything, and we'll give it out at any time.
SD: Has the situation improved in Sierra Leone?
RK: Yes, Sierra Lone is much better now. We can only cry for electricity; there are no lights in the city. And there is unemployment. The youths really want to work, but there are no jobs. And most of the houses are destroyed, so we are crying that they are repaired. Lodging is a problem in Freetown. But security-wise, we can go out. You can travel all over the country without having fear, like before. I tell you, my brother: Peace is the foundation of development.